Senior Cole Mann fielded the grounder and made the long throw to first, recording a final out he and his classmates had waited for their entire prep careers.
The Lecanto dugout emptied out on the field and mobbed senior pitcher Shawn Host, a celebration normally reserved for a championship.
There was indeed a trophy to be had on Friday night. The Big Bat went across the diamond from visiting Crystal River to the host Panthers, after they won 3-0 in the 26th annual Joe D. Rigney Memorial Bat Game.
It was the first time in four years Lecanto had won this event, named after one of its former players who died in a car accident one month after graduating in 1993.
“It’s a big game, especially at the end of the season. We’ve been playing some good baseball lately,” Lecanto head coach David Logue said. “This atmosphere is like a playoff atmosphere. We start playing like this, and like I told the guys, ‘You can’t hope to win. You’ve got to know you’re going to win when you step out there.’
“Tonight they knew they were going to win. I could feel it before the game started and they came out and they showed it.”
Logue pointed to two key factors in the victory: an errorless defense and Host. The tall lefty was sensational, yielding two harmless singles in a complete-game effort in which he faced just two over the minimum.
“I was able to get ahead, get ahead early. Threw all three pitches for strikes,” Host said. “Not having too many base runners on I was able to throw from the windup a lot, gave me a lot more power. I could really throw the fastball past some batters.”
After Cole Baldner’s single with two outs in the top of the third, Host retired the final 13 batters he faced. He struck out five for the game.
“Just throwing strikes; he was just attacking the zone, attacking it with a curveball and a fastball,” Logue said. “He wasn’t in hitter’s counts. He was getting ahead from the first pitch and he was just dealing them in there.”
The Panthers (6-14, 3-7 District 6A-6) staked Host to an early lead, taking advantage of some miscues by the Pirates (6-13, 2-7 6A-6).
Seth Stockburger walked and stole second to lead off the bottom of the first inning, then Chris Dirosa dropped down a bunt. The pitcher fielded the ball and went to third trying to catch Stockburger, but threw wildly and allowed the run to easily score.
In the second, Brandon Dirosa grounded a single to left to drive in a run and make it 2-0.
“It’s always nice being able to pitch with a lead,” Host said. “It just relieves a lot of stress and it’s more enjoyable. You can just throw your game.”
Lecanto tacked on a run in the fifth, helped out when a potential force out at second was dropped and a balk put a runner on third, setting up Chris Dirosa’s sacrifice fly to left.
The Panthers only managed five hits, none for extra bases, but the Pirates never had a runner reach second against Host.
Jake Behuniak threw a complete game of his own for Crystal River, walking two and striking out five.
“Hats off to Shawn for keeping us off-balance there,” Crystal River head coach Matt Garlock said. “Just disappointed with their at-bats. He wasn’t super overpowering, but obviously he kept us off-balance and it was something we weren’t ready for I suppose.
“It’s pretty tough, especially when we’ve had (the Bat) for the past four years, and the boys know that. I just feel for the boys and the seniors having to give it up. Obviously it’s a pretty big game, district matchup. But this may not be the last time that we see these guys and we’ll have something ready for them when we see them next time.”
Lecanto had previously defeated the Pirates on March 9, 9-3, and have won three out of five following an eight-game losing streak. Now the Panthers hope this win provides momentum for the stretch run.
“It’s very exciting because this year is the second year I’ve played in the Bat Game and it’s the first year I’ve ever physically touched and held the Bat,” Host said. “It was a really exciting moment and just nice to have it back.
“Yeah it’s been a long time since we’ve had the Bat, but it just goes to show when we put everything out on the field and work hard and play baseball with all three aspects, it just shows what we can do.”